Ive noticed that many audiophiles put on blinders when it comes to purchasing products outside of their supposed price ranges. Some will spend nothing more than the figure theyve arrived at. They have a "price ceiling" for their purchase, and this makes sense because their budgets can only allow them to spend so much money (and we dont want anyone robbing a bank to buy a new pair of speakers). On the other hand, as surprising as it sounds, there are some audiophiles who will look at nothing priced less than a certain amount. Theyre assuming that anything priced less than their "price floor" cant possibly perform as well as a product priced higher.
For me, price is secondary. I care more about how a product sounds, and over time Ive learned that although there can be a correlation between price and performance, its nothing Im going to bet on. Ive found an amazing number of rather inexpensive speakers that can embarrass far more costly ones. In fact, many of those people who wont look at anything less than what theyve set as their minimum price point would be red-faced if they listened with their ears instead of their eyes. The inexpensive-speaker market is shockingly active today, and its causing makers of more expensive speakers to scratch their heads some.
Enter Energys new $500-per-pair C-3 loudspeakers, part of Energy's new Connoisseur lineup. If you simply listened to the C-3 and werent told its price, Id wager youd think it costs a whole lot more.
The first time I saw the Connoisseur speaker lineup grille-less at a show, I was startled. With their silver front baffles, the speakers are way lighter in terms of their looks than most other speakers, and Energy has further enhanced this by making the woofers almost the same color as the baffles. Distinctive? Oh yeah. Energy is pushing the style envelope, and the result will likely have admirers and detractors. The C-3 will probably be too flashy for some, and thats why there are grilles, but it will be just right for others, and thats why you can remove the grilles so quickly (something Ill touch on shortly). Personally, I like seeing a feature so innovative at this price point.
Energy speakers come via the design leadership of John Tchilinguirian, who continues to promote three main goals that have long been part of the companys design philosophy: "low distortion and resonance," "wide and constant dispersion," and "flat frequency response with wide bandwidth." If these sound familiar to you, they should. They're exactly what Floyd Toole discovered with his research in the 80s at Canadas NRC. That research singled out those three main criteria, and Energy abides by them to this day -- not surprising given that Energy, along with a host of other companies, was intrinsically involved in all the research too. Working closely with Tchilinguirian on the Connoisseur designs was Martyn Miller.
Energy says that the C-3's baffle is made of Spherex, a "polymer injection-molded resin infused with hollow-glass spheres." Besides looking good, its supposed to have superior strength to MDF and can be shaped too. So Energy has taken advantage of it to create a rounded front baffle that is intended to be more rigid and optimize driver dispersion. The baffle is then mounted on an all-MDF cabinet measuring 7 3/4"W x 15 1/2"H x 11 1/2"D and clad in vinyl veneer. The black vinyl is typical of other speakers black finishes -- good but nothing special. However, the Canadian maple Energy also offers is stunning -- the best Ive seen near the C-3's price -- and most certainly the finish Id pick.
Another innovative feature of the C-3 is its magnetically attached grille. I first encountered something similar with Verity Audios pricey Fidelio speaker and wondered at the time why no one else (that I knew of, anyway) had done it. Now Energy has made it available on speakers priced in the hundreds of dollars. This is trickle-down technology at its finest and more than just a nifty feature. Theres no more yanking and cranking off grilles held on by those plastic pins (which often break over time). A total of eight magnets are on each C-3 grille, and they allow the grille to snap exactly into place when you get it near to the speaker. The Energy folks told me that attaching the grilles this way makes life easier for dealers who are required to flip the grilles on and off many times a day. As a user, I like the magnetic grilles because I listen critically with the grilles off and then place them back on for driver protection. This is fast and simple with the C-3.
The C-3's driver complement is a 1" aluminum-dome tweeter and a 6 1/2" homopolymer woofer, both custom-made for this series. The speaker has a large port on the front bottom, and the back of the speaker has a single set of binding posts.
The tweeter is the same one used throughout the Connoisseur lineup, and its crossed over for all models at 2kHz. The differences between the C-3 and its siblings come mainly in the size of the cabinets, the number of woofer drivers, and the sizes of those drivers. For example, the small C-1 comes with a single 5 1/2" woofer and is a two-way design, while the large C-9 has three 6 1/2" woofers in what Energy calls a "tapered four-way" configuration. There are C-5 and C-7 speakers with different driver configurations, and there are also center-channel and surround models to advance you into a full multichannel setup.
The impedance of the C-3 is said to be 8 ohms, with a low point of 4 ohms, and Energy says that "useable bass" response is down to 40Hz. Energy also rates the C-3's sensitivity as 92dB, two speakers in a typical room. While I grimace at yet another creative way to state sensitivity, I do commend Energy for giving sufficient detail to their specification. And I can see that they probably are trying to give an indication of what kind of output you can expect in a listening room. But Ive seen a number of other companies publish sensitivity figures that, when weve compared with our own measurements, weve found to be rather generous (to be kind) and they give no information as to how they arrived at them. And that absence of information is really unforgivable because it does nothing but mislead consumers. After all, although sensitivity is not indicative of a speakers sound quality, it is still an important specification because it tells how much power it will take to play a speaker at a certain volume level. Who will take responsibility when you cause damage by clipping an underpowered amp into what you were told was a high-efficiency speaker?
To compare apples to apples, sensitivity figures are usually stated for one speaker with a 2.83V input (although some like 1 watt), and measured in an anechoic chamber at a distance of 1 meter. Simple -- and precisely how we do it. Now, if everyone would just follow the rules. When sensitivity is measured like this, you will find that most speakers are below 90dB -- even some supposed high-efficiency ones.
However, knowing the rules that Energy has applied, you can make their oranges into our apples. Assuming that they are talking about a 1-meter measuring distance, we can just knock off 3dB for the doubling up of speakers (they state two speakers playing) and another 2-3dB for the room-to-anechoic-chamber difference in output. The result is a speaker that is 86-87dB, which is very typical of a speaker this size and design -- no real surprise. Besides, having such a sensitivity figure is nothing to be ashamed about -- its realistic.
Summed up, the Energy C-3 packs a lot of innovative features into what is a pretty low-cost speaker.
Since the C-3s are magnetically shielded, I began the review process with them in a modest video system being driven by a 100Wpc Nakamichi AV-10 surround-sound receiver. The speakers definitely worked well there, but then I brought them into my reference system for a vigorous workout. Their partners in high-end crime were a 200Wpc Perreaux 200iP integrated amplifier, an Arcam CD23T CD player, and Nirvana Audio cabling. The only important thing to note is that you dont need an amp as powerful as the Perreaux to drive the C-3's effectively. The receiver I played the speakers with had no trouble whatsoever driving them, and I suspect that any good solid-state amp of reasonable power and with a bit of guts will do fine.
Although the C-3s showed potential just "tossed" into my modest video system, they blossomed when set up in my reference system. Well away from any corners (at least six feet from the front wall), they had a fleshed-out presentation that was remarkably neutral. The bass was on par with that of the best similarly sized and priced speakers -- reasonably deep, quite full, and more than adequate for most music lovers (though not to the very depths). What I really liked was the midrange precision, immediately recognizable neutrality, and excellent refinement up top. These are the types of attributes I expect from monitor speakers costing more than $1000. At $500, this combination of traits is quite an accomplishment.
In past reviews, Ive been letting it be known that consumers today should expect nothing but top-notch high-frequency performance from even budget-priced speakers -- advancements in driver technology have done wonders for sound quality. Well, Energys Connoisseur speakers may well have upped the ante a notch more. The C-3's top end is sweet and surprisingly airy. In this price range, its the best Ive heard. And that purity extends right down to the midrange. I played "Shoot the Moon" from Norah Joness Come Away with Me [Blue Note 32088]. Her voice had a free and uncongested quality, and the detail flew through. Piano (a tough instrument to reproduce correctly) from this disc had the rich, bell-like sound I hear from the better, and usually more expensive, speakers that I review, and it was remarkable free of woolly or resonant colorations. Everything was clean, clear, and impressively tight.
The lower bass lacked energy compared to that of bigger speakers, and the detail down below was slightly obscured -- expected from a smallish speaker that can only go so low -- but for my tastes, in my room, it was still wholly adequate, and at $500 per pair, hardly a thing to complain about. If you want more bass, closer placement to boundaries will help to give the low end some "lift," or, of course, a sub could be added.
The qualities the C-3 exhibits are remarkably like those of the $1265- and $2000-per-pair Amphion argon2 and Revel Performa M20. You can call the C-3 their sonic little brother. All of these speakers share the same well-balanced sound that hits my ears as being extremely neutral. Some may find all these speakers a tad lean and perhaps even slightly forward, particularly if youre one who likes a laid-back midrange sound or a somewhat reticent top end, but to me their performance is ideal and exactly what monitor-type speakers should sound like.
However, the C-3 doesnt quite measure up to those more expensive speakers when looking at across-the-board performance and, as well, the Revel and Amphion speakers are built to higher standards, with heftier, more exotic cabinets. But the C-3 definitely plays in this league, and whats important to note is that when it comes to only the sound, the difference in what you pay for with the higher-priced speakers is far more than the difference in the quality of sound that they produce. In other words, the C-3 is very close to them at a fraction of their price, and thats serious praise for a $500 pair of speakers. In fact, the one area in which the C-3 squeaks ahead of the M20 in my books is in the highest highs. The Revel can be a tad clinical and analytical way up top, and this can leave some listeners a little put off; the C-3 is actually sweeter-sounding without any sacrifice of extension. I prefer it. Like I said, Energy has upped the ante in that regard.
Willie Nelsons "You Remain" from The Great Divide [Universal 586231] shows how freely music can soar from the C-3s. Nelson's textured voice is exceedingly clear and detailed, and without any chesty or overly resonant characteristics. Usually, deep male voice and piano show up some real problems in inexpensive speaker designs, but with anything I played, this just wasnt so with the C-3. I expected some sort of hollow, wooden, or "still in the box" sound at this price, if only a little bit, but I just didnt hear it.
Instruments like guitars and drums are lively and detailed without being edgy or harsh. Dense mixes are sliced into, and plenty of detail is unraveled before your ears. I suspect this is largely attributable to that excellent tweeter performance, which remains so clean and refined. Neutrality and transparency are simply excellent, and there is absolutely no peakiness or reticence that I can detect.
Certainly, there are more expensive speakers, like the Amphion and the Revel, that can bring out microscopic detail just at little bit more, and thats part of what you pay for with those more expensive speakers. But I wasnt prepared for how close the C-3 comes to them. The C-3 may not be the ultimate in terms of resolution, but it is neutral and quite revealing of upstream components.
I was also impressed with how well the C-3 can fly through most any type of music and, for those who like to crank em up, they can play pretty loud too. The final track on the soundtrack to the movie The Million Dollar Hotel [Interscope 542395], "Anarchy in the USA," is a ripper by Titto Larriva and the MDH Band that would be right at home on any late-70s punk album. This impolite little piece can show if a speaker is able to deliver hard-edged rock. The slightly lean character of the C-3 keeps me from turning up the volume to ear-splitting levels (a stunted tweeter and a reticent midrange can make edgy music like this a little more palatable, but you wouldnt call such sound accurate), but the speaker showed how adept it was at diving into the recording and delivering it ably with non-stop rhythm.
So is the C-3 a perfect $500 speaker? Not quite, but then nothing is. Time to nit-pick. I went back and focused on Norah Joness voice, and although I reveled in how clear and balanced it sounded, if I wanted to accuse the C-3 of something, I could say its a little bit dry, particularly in the upper mids. This is not really noticeable with male vocals because they tend to have more warmth and heft to them, but it can be heard on female vocals like those of Norah Jones or Ani DiFranco. The C-3 is smooth and refined, but its just not liquid. So, for those who favor a warmer sound in the vocal region, the C-3 still may be just a little cold -- and rather like the Revel. On the other hand, if you want to experiment with amps or cables to "tune" the C-3 to your liking and perhaps warm it up a notch, I imagine the C-3 will respond just fine.
Then there are the soundstaging and imaging. What the C-3 does do is match the best of its comparatively priced peers. What it doesnt do is outclass them. The C-3 casts stable and specific images, and center-fill is never a problem. Depth is there, although it tends to be focused toward the center area. All told, nothing is an issue in this regard, and the C-3's performance here is actually commendable because it does present a real stage. But so too do the best of its equal-priced competition.
And this is one area where you do get a marked improvement when going to something more upscale like the Amphion argon2. That speaker casts an ultra-tight soundstage with precise focus and depth that extends not only to the back middle of the stage, but back behind the speakers and around the corners too. It simply lays out something bigger, more precise, and more enveloping if the recording allows it. But remember, thats a speaker thats more than twice this ones price, and when it comes to throwing a stage, the Amphion outclasses speakers even many times its own price.
If youve been itching to get one of those over-$1000, hot-shot monitor-sized speakers like the Amphion argon2 or Revel Performa M20 but dont have the money, the Energy C-3 is the speaker for you. No, you wont get a wood-veneered cabinet, but you will get a speaker that's rather unique-looking and offers knockout sound. I doubt that among those who value sonic refinement and neutrality you will find much disagreement. This is an amazingly complete monitor that compares very favorably to the more upscale products I use as references. The Energy Connoisseur C-3 is a textbook example of a high-value speaker -- and a Reviewers' Choice.
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